What is so bad about polygamy?
By Brian Earp (Follow Brian on Twitter by clicking here.)
What do gay marriage and polygamy have in common?
To find out, watch this exchange between US Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, and a New Hampshire college student. Here’s an edit to give the gist:
Student: How about the ideas that all men are created equal, and the rights to happiness and liberty? [Applause.]
Santorum: Ok, so — Are we saying that everyone should have the right to marry?
Audience: Yes! Yes!
Santorum: Everyone? Ok, so, anybody can marry anybody else.
Audience: Yes, yes!
Santorum: So anyone can marry several people? …
Audience: No … !
Santorum: I’m just positing some things you need to think about. So if everybody has a right to be happy — so if you’re not happy unless you’re married to five other people is that OK?
Audience member: That’s not what we’re asking!
Santorum: I’m asking the question. If what you said was, every person has a right to their own happiness –
Audience member: That’s irrelevant …
Santorum: No, it’s not irrelevant.
Student: [We're talking about] the right for two men to have the same rights as a man and a woman.
Santorum: Well, what about three men?
Audience: We’re not talking about that!
This exchange is fascinating. Let’s see why. Santorum’s view is that endorsing gay marriage automatically commits one to polygamy-acceptance as well. His logic—which amounts to a reductio ad absurdum—can be spelled out in the following way:
(1) Gay marriage proponents (like those in the audience in the above exchange) hold that individuals are entitled to marry whomsoever they wish, via mutual consent, in pursuit of their own happiness. In fact, they seem to argue, this is at base the very the principle that heterosexuals implicitly enact in their own marriage arrangements. For the sake of fair treatment, then, gay individuals should be able to marry whomsoever they wish, via mutual consent, in pursuit of their own happiness, as well.
(2) But if you endorse that principle, Santorum rebuts, you are automatically committed to the position that polygamy is OK. This is because someone who wants to marry two, or three, or four, or five individuals, for the sake of their personal happiness, should also be entitled to do so — on the “marriage-in-pursuit-of-happiness” principle above — so long as each individual consents to the plan.
(3) But obviously polygamy is unacceptable and immoral and bad.
(4) So the conception of marriage that is being employed to establish a right for gay individuals to wed is too broad: it would confer a right to polygamists as well. Therefore one cannot endorse that conception of marriage; and hence the “marriage is between one man and one woman” definition stands tall, undefeated by all known challengers.
There are a number of ways to respond to Santorum. One way would be to challenge the idea that polygamy-acceptance automatically ensues from the marriage-happiness principle set out in premise (1). Another would be to deny that the principle behind gay marriage really is as simple as “everybody can marry whoever they want.” But let’s assume for now — for the sake of argument — that the principle really is that simple, and that acceptance of polygamy really is a consequence of endorsing it. Now then, I want to pursue a different line of response. I want to question premise (3).
My question is this. Why do we automatically assume that polygamy is unacceptable and immoral and bad? Why should the argumentative “buck” stop there? In the exchange above, you’ll notice that the audience keeps trying to avoid the question, stating that it’s “irrelevant” or that polygamy isn’t what they were “talking about.” Maybe they think that (2) doesn’t actually follow from (1), or they just aren’t prepared to conjure up an argument on the fly. But why shouldn’t they be “talking about” polygamy?
Let me step back. I’ve noticed that in discussions of gay marriage, some people, usually religious conservatives, try to make an argument like this. “Marriage—meaning a union between one man and one woman—is a centuries-long tradition that has to be preserved for the sake of civilization. If you try to re-define so sacred an institution in a way that would allow gay people to marry, you’ll find yourself on a slippery slope … for, then, what is to stop you from allowing polygamy??”
In these debates generally — as in the one here with Santorum — the “liberal” or “progressive” commentator will very often take issue with the first few steps in the argument. They’ll point out that the “traditional” conception of marriage is actually a recent invention—only about 200 years old—or they’ll bring up a number of fallacies in the line about “defending civilization.” They might even get so far as urging that you don’t really risk getting yourself onto a slippery slope, since “no one is trying to advocate a right for polygamists, so it’s irrelevant” — largely the tack taken by the college students in the video above. But why isn’t anyone challenging the implicit final step — the one suggesting that to permit polygamy would be anathema to all things decent and civilized?
I’m not sure I see how it is. Polygamy has long been a part our species’ history, and it’s still practiced in some parts of the world where tradition and economic considerations allow. If three people wanted to get married – or four, or five – and each individual was an adult capable of giving full consent, what exactly is the problem?
Let me be clear about what I’m suggesting. By ‘polygamy’ I mean a marriage involving more than two partners; so perhaps “group marriage” would be a clearer term. Sub-categories of polygamy include polygyny, which is the marriage of a man to multiple wives; and polyandry, which is the marriage of a female to multiple husbands. Other gender match-ups are possible too; and any combination would count on my proposal. Crucially, I’m talking about a marriage agreement to which all parties consent from the get-go.
Now, then: Where is the ethical problem? Why does premise (3) automatically give the “absurdum” in the reductio above? In other words, can someone tell me, please, what’s so bad about polygamy?
I’m open to taking your view.
See the comments section below for some good arguments about why polygamy might be problematic after all. For more thoughtful discussion on this topic, see Jean Kazez’ excellent blog here.